Need Food Stamps in New York? Come Back in a Few Months.
This article, published with the support of the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project and in partnership with the Albany Times Union, is the first installment in a series on New Yorkers’ access to public benefits.
Alma Garcia, a 31-year-old mother of five in Middletown, called a cab she couldn’t afford to take her from one public benefits office to another, on the other side of the county.
Garcia applied to renew her food stamps last October. The local social service agency lost her paperwork and told her to go to another office. Then it closed her case and asked her to submit a new application. Then it transferred her to a new caseworker.
Five months went by before the agency finally approved her new application — without making up for the lost time. She borrowed money throughout the fall and winter to pay for groceries, and the resulting pile of debt couldn’t come at a worse moment: She lost her longtime job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office when her boss retired last year.
“Where am I going to get food for my kids?” she asked. Her youngest is three years old.
Across the state, tens of thousands of New Yorkers who have applied for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, have had their benefits delayed for more than 30 days, in violation of federal law, documents obtained by New York Focus show.
And as pandemic-era policies that streamlined benefits application processes expire, the backlog could get worse.
New York City is currently facing a lawsuit over its skyrocketing delays. But the problem extends across the state, where it has attracted little attention — in part because its scope has not previously been known.
In December of last year, the latest month for which New York Focus has data, the state’s 57 county social services offices outside New York City were illegally late in processing more than 11,000 food stamp claims — or one out of three open applications.
That’s just an average. In Orange County, where Garcia applied, more than half of applicants are left waiting past 30 days. Neighboring Rockland County doesn’t do much better. (New York City Mayor Eric Adams wants to send hundreds of asylum-seeking migrants to the two counties.)
The dramatic divergences in performance between counties reflects the fact that each one administers its own social services. Experts say New York’s decentralized model, shared by only nine other states, is one underlying cause of the delays.
And it exacerbates what caseworkers describe as the biggest reason they’re struggling to keep up: there aren’t enough of them, and the acute lack of staff is fueling overwork and burnout.
“Over the past year, I have not been to a supervisors meeting yet where someone has not broken down into tears,” one worker at a social service agency, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, told New York Focus. “And we’re talking tough birds, people who have been working here for twenty some years.”
“We Weren’t Prepared”
New York Focus visited the Orange County benefits office in Goshen, where Garcia had applied for benefits, in early March. In the drab waiting room, past a metal detector and under thin overhead lighting, people waited around on plastic chairs, most for at least 30 minutes. Over the course of two hours on a Friday afternoon, about a dozen people passed through the office. Some had driven 50 miles to get there. Many had taken time off work, since the office is only open during weekday business hours.
A gentleman wearing a wide-brimmed hat and cowboy boots was one of several who described long delays in getting their food stamp applications processed. He spoke only Spanish; his 14-year-old daughter dealt with the county workers on his behalf. He’d gotten his benefits approved after waiting far longer than 30 days, he said, but still hadn’t received the pin number he needed to use his ebt card, through which benefits are disbursed.
Pinned to a corkboard, a sign made clear that SNAP applications must be approved or denied within 30 days.
Last October, the month Garcia applied, 1,910 applicants were waiting on a decision from the Orange County social services department. By the end of the month, two-thirds of them — 1,242 people — had been waiting longer than the 30-day legal limit.
Just south along the Hudson River, Rockland County social services missed the deadline on 53 percent of open applications that month. In Broome County, home to Binghamton, the figure was 45 percent.
What’s causing the delays?
Social service agencies and the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA), which is supposed to oversee them, point to a sharp increase in applications during the pandemic. Orange County has seen two to three times the number of SNAP applications since the pandemic started, even as staffing levels have declined, according to county spokesperson Justin Rodriguez.
“We expected more applications during the pandemic naturally,” the caseworker told New York Focus. “What we weren’t prepared for was so many people leaving for better jobs.”
OTDA spokesperson Anthony Farmer pointed to the challenges of the pandemic as well. He said the state agency is “committed to working with these counties to help them improve case processing timeliness,” but did not elaborate when asked what specifically it will do to help.
But three years after Covid-19 first hit New York, delays have not improved. And experts say the pandemic-era spikes reveal deeper problems.
Most states have a central office that runs all of their SNAP programs. New York is one of ten outliers that delegate the job — including evaluating applications — to county offices. The county-run model is associated with higher costs and error rates, research has found.
That’s in part because decentralization makes it harder to hold counties accountable through state action or outside lawsuits — or, in New York, even to track their performance. Of the ten decentralized states, New York is one of only two that doesn’t make county-level performance data easily accessible. SNAP processing data isn’t public outside of New York City. The county-level information is compiled by a decades-old computer system that runs on a nearly-extinct programming language. New York Focus received it through a Freedom of Information Law request in an almost inscrutable format.
The decentralized model also exacerbates staffing issues. If benefits were centrally coordinated, temporary vacancies in one office — as a result of a Covid outbreak, say, or an unexpected resignation — could be backfilled from other offices across the state. “That simply isn’t the case here,” said Saima Akhtar, a senior staff attorney with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice whose work focuses on public benefits.
‘Going To Get Worse Before It Gets Better’
When the pandemic spurred federal aid expansions, anyone eligible for food stamps automatically qualified for the maximum benefit, interviews weren’t required, and in some counties, applicants didn’t have to recertify for benefits. These provisions led more people to apply for benefits and streamlined the process for their cases. They have all recently expired.
“We acknowledged that people really needed health insurance and they really needed to eat,” Akhtar said. As heavier requirements go back into effect — as do time-intensive Medicaid renewal eligibility checks, which the same offices handle — she projected that delays are “going to get worse before they get better.”
The reinstated requirements add to the already-onerous process of applying for SNAP benefits, which generally begins with a 26-page form asking questions about applicants’ medical history, living conditions, and finances as minute as whether they or their family members own a burial plot.
“Applicants are subject to so much scrutiny to access a level of assistance that is astoundingly low,” said Jessica Radbord, a senior attorney at Empire Justice, a legal advocacy organization based in Albany.
“It’s incredibly time-consuming,” said a recent applicant in Schenectady County. “And it makes the recipient feel like they’re a leech.”
All this leaves people like Garcia at loose ends. To make matters worse, she recently lost her wallet at a WalMart. She’s undocumented (the SNAP applications are technically in her kids’ names), and now has no photo identification or way of requesting a new Mexican id.
She cooks big meals for her kids, mostly traditional Mexican food. “Rice, beans, a little bit of everything,” she said. “They like it when I do tacos dorados with white rice.” (She’s not a fan of Anglo food; the chicken salad she ordered at a restaurant near her apartment during an interview for this article “needed aguacate or something.”)
During the long half-year she went without food stamps, she paid for those meals with the money she’d budgeted for the rent. Now, she’s worried that her landlord might evict her.
“I’m getting to the point where I probably will end up in a shelter,” she said. “And when I ask for help, they’re just giving me so many problems.”
Alex Lubben is a reporter whose work focuses on climate change. He previously worked for VICE News.
Co-published with New York Focus.